The town of Flintridge is situated in the mountainous country west of the Iowa Territory. Scattered at the base of the foothills stand a handful of shacks that pass as houses, a dry goods store, a stable with attached smithy, and various other businesses necessary to sustain a standard of living. At the entrance to the town stands a constabulary, the youngest building in the newborn town.
A little over a mile from the town proper a river descends from the mountaintops, shrinking as it reaches lower elevations. Where it flows past Flintridge it is little more than a shallow brook. Regardless, the fresh water is the lifeblood that keeps Flintridge alive in an otherwise forbidding country. Sagebrush clings to the banks of the creek and its floodplain feeds a modest acreage of grass. Each year the stream is inundated with water from the snow melting off the mountains, necessitating the town to be placed some distance from the water source to avoid flooding.
Flintridge supports a population of fifty-seven souls, divided amongst a handful of families. Out of necessity the community is close-knit, but every town has its deviants. To handle these disturbances, a new sheriff was sent for.
Alexander Judge departed from New York on a Friday morning in August. He boarded a train. His horse, an elegant black Morgan-bred, had been loaded in a stock car. Together they were headed west, to embark on a new adventure in their lives.
Before stepping up into the third class carriage, Alexander adjusted his waistcoat. It was new-bought from the tailor, made from a modest but smart navy blue fabric. He shrugged into his coat and took a moment to ensure that the cuffs and lapels laid as they should. Though he had not come from a wealthy family, his father had served on the police force in New York for years and insisted that his only son maintain his appearance meticulously. Alexander was now in his twenty-sixth year, fresh out of law school, but his father's teachings still held firm in his mind.
Through his father's connections, Judge the younger had been appointed as the sheriff in the town of Flintridge, located in the rugged western territories. Personally, Alexander was not certain what to make of the commission but his innate sense of duty did not allow him to question it for long. Dutifully he had accepted and was eager to take up the reins of justice in Flintridge.
The fledgling sheriff found an unoccupied seat in the carriage. He stowed his travel case in the carrier above and settled onto the uncomfortable bench. The bench seat was without padding and the wood was worn so badly with use that it was beginning to splinter. Others crowded in, filling up the benches and squishing close together so everyone would fit.
A rather large man dropped onto the bench beside him and bumped into Alexander in the process. Judge squirmed on the bench, trying to find a more comfortable position. Try as he might he could not escape the bulk pressing against his right side, for he was barred in on the left by an elderly woman with a bad cough.
The train whistle sounded and the coaches lurched forward. Everyone was thrown against their neighbor as the train took off. Once the train had left the station and reached optimum speed the movement of the cars, though annoying, became more predictable.
Brushing a lock of ginger hair from his brow, Alexander reached into his coat pocket. He extracted his reading glasses and an envelope, the seal of which was already broken. Licking his lips, still discomforted by the close presence of strangers to left and right, he opened the letter and perused the contents again. He had read this particular missive at least a dozen times, but felt that once more would do no harm.
Mr. Alexander Judge,
I have heard that you have been appointed as the new sheriff of Flintridge. I am writing to express my congratulations and to wish you welcome as you make preparations to come west.
Flintridge is yet a very young town and I am pleasantly surprised that the government saw fit to send us a worthy lawman such as yourself. To give you some local history, the town grew around a homestead belonging to one Byrne Jameson. He came west some years ago, the exact number escapes my memory, and makes his living as a mustang runner. I have met him on only a few occasions - he is a recluse - but he seems to be a genuine, honest fellow.
Your quarters at the newly built constabulary are prepared, ready for your arrival. Our chief water source, a mountain river, is located about a mile without the town. There has been talk of putting in wells but so far the dream has not been realized. My hope is that one will be prepared before you arrive.
If, upon your arrival, you find yourself in need of anything at all please do not hesitate to call on me. My family and I live in the apartments adjoining the general store, of which I am the proprietor, and would be glad to lend you any assistance.
With most sincere regards,
Postscript: As I am sure you are aware, the outlaw problem has been growing in Flintridge and the surrounding towns. It is my sincerest hope that you come fully prepared to deal with these barbarians.
Alexander appreciated the time taken by the general store owner to write him and bid him welcome. He looked forward to meeting this man and determined that he would stop in at the store as soon as he was settled in Flintridge.
Refolding the letter and tucking it safely back into his coat pocket, Alexander searched for another task with which to busy his mind. He knew the journey ahead of him would not soon be over.
Indeed it was a long, tiring journey. The incessant rocking of the carriage on the rails, the dust pushing through the cracks in the windows, the smell of bodies confined in a cramped, hot space for too long, all contributed to making the trip seem to last an eternity. Alexander spent the first few hours struggling to read one of his legal tomes but could not steady his hands for the jarring motions of the train car. He began to feel ill, suffering from motion sickness. Setting the book aside, he removed his reading glasses, loosened his cravat, and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"You look like you could use a drink," a male voice commented from across the car.
Alexander opened his eyes and searched the faces of those on the bench opposite, trying to determine which of them had spoken. One man, heavily bearded, raised his hand briefly and offered a grin. He tossed Alexander a ratty, stained wineskin.
Never having been the most coordinated person, Judge fumbled to catch it. "Much obliged, thank you." Reluctantly Alexander uncorked the drinking vessel. It was heavy, almost completely full. He felt the other man's expectant gaze on him. "Alexander Judge. Pleased to meet you, Mr. …"
The bearded man shook his head. "I don't hand my name out willy-nilly."
"Though you seem willing to share your drink willy-nilly." Alexander took an experimental sniff. Over the powerful scent of goatskin and grime he could not smell the contents. He was loath to have to drink from the filthy, well-used wineskin.
"Are you going to drink or what?"
Not wanting to make an enemy over something as trivial as sharing a drink, Alexander took a small sip. He had to suppress a cough for the alcohol was potent.
The man across the car chuckled good-naturedly. "Where're you headed?" He scratched his beard and with a jolt of repulsion Alexander wondered if the owner of the drinking vessel had fleas.
"West. Flintridge." Alexander corked the skin and threw it back to its owner. Fortunately for him the bearded man was perfectly capable of receiving his poorly aimed toss. Otherwise it would have struck the slumbering woman to his acquaintance's left. "Thank you for the beverage." Judge was still suffering from a motion sickness headache and his stomach felt unsettled. The alcohol had not improved matters.
"I daresay you'll need to learn to handle your liquor if you're heading out that far," the stranger said with another kindly laugh. His next statement was more serious. "Coarse country out there. Lawless. What's sending a dandy like you out west?"
"I am bringing the law to the outskirts of civilization," Alexander answered, gaining some confidence from the familiar subject. He pulled back the lapel of his coat, revealing the silver star pinned to his waistcoat. The newly minted badge gleamed even in the weak light of the carriage; its wearer, likewise, was brimming with pride.
The train car lurched and the occupants all rocked into one another. Alexander's headache grew suddenly worse and he again pinched the bridge of his nose, letting his coat fall back into place over the silver star. The dozers slept on, undisturbed. Alexander envied them.
"Need another drink?" the observant man on the other side of the carriage asked. Though Alexander's eyes were closed he knew the other was grinning by the tone of his voice. His tolerance for being made sport of was beginning to slip away, chased by the pounding pressure in his skull.
"I think I've had all the drink I can stomach for now, thank you." Immediately he regretted his brusque tone. "Do forgive me, this headache is having an appalling effect on my manners." He waved his hand in the air dismissively. "Whither are you bound, sir?"
"Same place as you." The bearded man stretched his legs out as far as he could in the cramped space and leaned back, cradling his wineskin against his chest. A crude knapsack sat on the floor between his feet. His clothing was simple: an untucked long sleeve shirt, pants, wide-brimmed hat and overcoat, all of which had seen better days as evidenced by the holes that riddled the clothing. To further complete the picture of scruffiness and lack of hygiene, he was coated in a fine layer of sand.
Alexander looked askance at his own shoulder to determine if he had received a similar dusting from travel. Brushing the gritty dust from his coat, he responded to the other man's answer. "Really? From what you have said about it I was given the impression that you have a low opinion of the place." He pulled his coat off and folded it on his lap. The stale air in the carriage was growing hot. "What sends you to Flintridge?"
The man shrugged and drank from the wineskin. Alexander noted with some dismay that he had no issue tolerating the strong liquor. "No real reason. I've been out west before, lived in one small town or another. When I came back east I discovered that modern amenities in the big cities didn't suit me so well. So, I'm headed back out where a man can live a life of adventure." He took another swig. "Maybe I'll see you around town then."
"Perhaps we will." Alexander nodded in salute. He leaned against the backrest and closed his eyes, intending to sleep away as much of the miserable journey as possible. The ever-present sand continued to sift into the carriage, sticking to sweaty skin and damp clothing.
When he woke some hours later the bearded man was no longer sitting on the bench opposite. Alexander groggily surveyed those surrounding him. Most were asleep.
He worked his jaw, trying to get the parched feeling out of his mouth. To his great dismay he felt sand grind between his teeth. He glanced around him, suddenly self-conscious. He hoped no one had caught him sleeping with his mouth open.
With a sharp pang his bladder reminded him why he had woken in the first place and he stood. Stretching as much as the cramped space would allow, Alexander went in search of a water closet.
His search took him out of the compartment. As he stepped out onto the platform between cars he was startled to realize that he was not alone. The bearded man stood with his back to the door, smoking placidly as he watched the scenery go by. Alexander hardly took note of the fact that they were now well away from big cities. The train steamed over a tall grass prairie. Without sparing a second to acknowledge the bearded man he hastened on to the next compartment.
After he had relieved himself he took his time going back to his seat. Being up and moving around was such a relief after being seated for so long. There was a kink in his neck that he wished he could work out but despite his stretches it would not budge. He paused on the observation platform between cars. He was alone. After the cramped quarters inside the car the fresh air and solace was welcome.
Leaning on the rail for support against the jarring motion of the cars, Alexander watched the scenery go by. He did not know what part of the country they were now passing through but it was apparently uninhabited. As far as the eye could see were rolling hills blanketed in tall grasses. The wind rushed through the grass, giving the illusion of silvery waves rippling across the prairie. Splashes of color, golds and oranges, whites and pinks, broke the blue-green sea of grass. The immensity of it all, the complete emptiness, the pristine nature of the land took Alexander's breath away. High above, only a few puffs of white clouds floated across the brilliant blue sky. Judge inhaled deeply, savoring the variety of scents wafting from the grass.
A piercing metallic screech suddenly filled the air. Alexander threw his hands up to cover his ears, gritting his teeth and wincing against the horrendous noise. What he failed to realize was that the sound meant that the train was braking quickly. The cars lurched as the train gradually slowed up. Alexander spared one hand to hang onto the railing. The high-pitched whine continued to assault his senses.
White-knuckled on the rail, Judge leaned far out, trying to see what was causing the sudden stop. The platform jumped beneath his feet, threatening to pitch him over the railing. Alexander gave a cry as he was hurtled upward.
A firm hand caught hold of his coat and hauled him back to safety. Breathing hard, the young sheriff turned to thank his savior. It was the bearded man.
"Take care, Mr. Judge. Where you're going you'll need to keep aware of your surroundings."
Alexander nodded vaguely, shaking with adrenaline. He took in gulps of air, trying to steady himself. When he had got his breath back he realized that the train had started up again and was slowly accelerating. "What had happened? Why did the train stop so suddenly?" he inquired of his companion.
The bearded man shrugged. "They were stoppin' for something." He steady, wise, brown eyes were trained on the far horizon.
"Evidently." Alexander could not quite keep the sarcasm from his voice. He was finding his companion's habit of stating the obvious tiresome.
Gradually a lowing sound could be heard over the clatter of wheels on rail. Alexander's brow furrowed as the sound registered with him. He approached the rail again, taking care not to lean so far over.
Great brown beasts were seething away from the train. Alexander's jaw dropped as he stared at them, each individual taller than his saddle horse and far greater in bulk. Their shaggy chocolate-colored coats bobbed as they galloped heavily along, emitting their snorting, lowing cries. The combined sound of their hooves striking the ground drowned out even the sounds of the train as their carriage passed through the mob of beasts.
"What are they?" Alexander shouted, unable to take his eyes off the huge curved horns of the animals as they ran past. The whites of their eyes showed stark against their dark brown faces.
"Buffalo," the bearded man answered as a shout close to his ear. Fascinated, Alexander could only stare at the hulking beasts as they stampeded away from the train on both sides. "Welcome to the Wild West, Mr. Judge." The bearded man clapped him on the shoulder.
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